New retail trends present opportunity for downtown growth in Anniston, Jacksonville
by Cameron Steele
csteele@annistonstar.com
Nov 25, 2012 | 6629 views |  0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A Quintard Mall shopper, Barbie Brunner, looks at Christmas items at a kiosk. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
A Quintard Mall shopper, Barbie Brunner, looks at Christmas items at a kiosk. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
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On a recent, rainy Monday lunch hour, the Rabbit Hutch was nearly empty; only one shopper browsed at the Anniston gift shop, newly decked out with Christmas items. Outside, Noble Street was fairly vacant too, with a handful of cars parked along the downtown street.

Meanwhile, in Oxford, Quintard Mall remained a bit busier: Six people gathered around the mall’s new holiday decorations, and just more than 100 mingled in the food court.

On the other side of Interstate 20, the Oxford Exchange bustled with activity as large groups of people lugged shopping bags and carts out of Target, others crowded the aisles of Old Navy, and at T.J. Maxx, the checkout line wound across the front of the store.

None of these shopping scenes is, perhaps, surprising: Anniston and its downtown area have long played second fiddle to Oxford when it comes to retail. But now, on the heels of the recession and a change in shopping behavior, Anniston and other downtown areas in Calhoun County have an opportunity to build up their own retail presences, according to retail experts.

Since the recession hit, shoppers have increasingly shunned enclosed mall spaces, electing for a more boutique-friendly, “town-hall” type of experience, according to state and national retail experts.

“That is the same kind of concept as the downtown, which lends itself to that kind of shopping,” said Nancy Dennis, the director of public relations for the Alabama Retail Association.

Convenience and ‘shoppertainment’

The attraction of enclosed shopping malls and big-box retail has waned in recent years, Dennis said, as a matter of both convenience and experience.

In recent years, the vacancy rates of malls around the country have increased while anchor stores like Sears and Gap have pulled back their mall presences, national reports show. Nationally, a real estate analysis group estimates that 10 percent of malls will close within the next decade. Some 100 of the estimated 1,000 U.S. malls will shut down by 2022, Green Street Advisors predicted in a report earlier this year.

In Alabama, large retail developments aren’t exactly popping up all over the place, either, experts said. The number of shopping centers increased by four between 2010 and 2011, from 1,532 to 1,536, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

At the same time, some national retailers who focus on smaller, stand-alone stores are growing. Dollar General, for example, has succeeded by combining that small-store aesthetic with cheap-price mentality, adding some 625 new stores this year to its national chain.

People who once flocked to regional malls and the suburbs to do their shopping are — especially since the recession — looking for more unique, more boutique shopping experiences when they are not purchasing online, Dennis said.

“Two things are really driving the market with consumer shopping right now: convenience and price,” said Lacy Beasley, a researcher with the Shopping Center Group in Birmingham. “And shoppers also are looking for places that provide something more than just a product.”

In other words, people want to be able to quickly park their cars, pop into the store where they want to shop and easily find the items they need, Dennis said. But they also want to be entertained when they’re out and about, to be offered services other than retail, such as good food, music and theater opportunities and nice green parks to walk the dog.

It’s a phenomenon that Beasley calls “shoppertainment” — something many malls and shopping centers around the country are trying to mimic, Dennis said, with more live-venue type of places and the addition of parks and more open-air type of space.

Downtown areas — especially in smaller cities, where parking is not difficult to find — can take advantage of that, state and local officials said, primarily because downtowns are already set up as a boutique-friendly, open-air experience.

“People do like to be out and about, to go from spot to spot, to shop in places like the Summit in Birmingham, which is like a downtown,” said Kay Moore, director of Downtown Gadsden Inc. “And I really think our downtowns are benefiting from that and from ‘shop-local’ campaigns.”

Success in Gadsden Cities like Montgomery and Gadsden have in recent years begun, somewhat successfully, to refocus on downtown development in attempts to capitalize on new shopping trends, according to Moore and Dennis. The success of Gadsden in particular, Calhoun County leaders said, can offer a loose blueprint for Anniston and Jacksonville. The transformation of downtown Gadsden from virtual “ghost town” to a thriving retail center with a 90 percent occupancy rate wasn’t easy, Moore said.

“At the beginning, most of our retailers had left us for the mall,” Moore said. “And we needed a vision; we didn’t want to lose our downtown.”

The transformation came about through extensive planning, which involved cooperation on the part of private nonprofits, like Downtown Gadsden, retailers and city leaders. It also took efforts that have spanned decades, Moore said, beginning with a redesign of downtown parking, streets and green areas in 1993.

After that, Moore said, it became apparent that people enjoyed walking around the more visually pleasing, more parking-friendly downtown. So, with the support of a longtime local retailer, Downtown Gadsden started a series of campaigns to bring more Gadsden residents back to the Main Street area, and to help attract retailers, too.

The “First Friday” event, held in Gadsden on the first Friday of every month, features live entertainment in five different spots throughout the downtown area, a row of vendors selling wares and food and restaurants and shops open later than they normally would be. The event was a success, and now Gadsden has several others just like it throughout each month.

Since then, retailers have come back to downtown, nearly filling all its store fronts.

“So now when people call to look about opening a small boutique downtown, I really don’t have much open to offer them,” Moore said.

A turning point?

State and local retail experts are confident this convenience-shoppertainment model can work in places like Anniston, too.

New projects — such as the development of the Coldwater Mountain Bike Trail and the construction of a new police and justice center — encourage outside visitors and improve downtown aesthetics, said Beasley, who has specifically studied the Anniston trade area for local officials.

She said she’s been in contact with several franchise outfits who have expressed interest in locating in Anniston, although she declined to mention any of those businesses specifically by name.

The future completion of the Veterans Memorial Parkway and the potential for development of McClellan will eventually make both Anniston and Jacksonville more attractive to retailers, Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce officials said, as more traffic and people are introduced to the area.

“This is a turning point,” agreed Toby Bennington, city planner for Anniston. “The Anniston area has an opportunity to create a uniqueness; there is already a fantastic seed in place.”

There are, of course, many challenges facing cities like Anniston and Jacksonville when it comes to developing their downtowns and retail industries. Lack of strategic planning, of visionary leadership and of understanding about how to recruit businesses are all hurdles that both Anniston and Jacksonville have faced, officials in those cities said.

“It seems to be a trait of many small towns: When you can’t get all the citizens, all the different interest groups on the same page,” Anniston Mayor Vaughn Stewart said.

The biggest challenge for them, Beasley points out, is that “they aren’t on the interstate, and Oxford is.”

Indeed, Oxford’s proximity to the interstate, its ability to clinch developments — like the expansion of the mall in 2000, the Exchange and most recently the Oxford Commons shopping center with its Publix grocery anchor — have made it Calhoun County’s most successful retail hub, local officials said.

People across the county, and others traveling on I-20, want to come to Oxford to shop, city project manager Fred Denney said, because there’s so much available to them.

A shopper in Oxford has a variety of boutique and big-box retail stores available to her, can go to a movie at the AmStar theatre in the mall, get coffee from the local Starbucks and peruse the shelves at Books-A-Million — all within the same city limits.

“We don’t want people to have to go to Oxford to go see a movie,” Jacksonville Mayor Johnny Smith said, but that’s the reality of it.

Mall still strong

That reality, in part, has buffered Quintard Mall from the atrophy other enclosed malls around the country have experienced. Although during a count on a recent Friday, the mall sported at least 11 empty store fronts, officials said the occupancy rate is at 96 percent — better than the 91.3 percent average rate for other regional malls in the U.S., according to Reis, a real estate research company.

“Indoor shopping centers (malls) have seen some challenges over the past few years but as a whole the entire industry has seen the same challenges,” mall general manager Amy Stone wrote in an email. “As with any business we market our strengths: climate controlled shopping, variety of shopping, eating and entertainment choices, shopping local to invest in local economy, and the unique ability for tenants and shoppers to have a relationship with shopping center management.”

Stone also noted that mall officials have worked to keep the mall in touch with the shopper tendencies toward “town hall” settings and entertainment-based shopping.

“In the last few years, we have embraced small locally owned shops and added them to our tenant mix,” Stone said. “This has been met with overwhelming shopper approval.”

A noticeable shift

Still, even some of the workers at one of those locally owned stores in the mall have noticed the shift to open-air, town-hall style shopping. Brittany Jeffers, an employee at the Girlfriends gift shop at Quintard Mall and also a worker at Lane Bryant at the Oxford Exchange, said she sees fewer customers in the mall store.

People want to be able to park close to where they shop, Jeffers said, they don’t like milling around the inside of a mall anymore.

Even those who do elect to shop at enclosed malls try to park close to the store where they plan to do their shopping, co-worker Delane O’Kelley added.

“When I shop, I don’t usually go to the mall,” Jeffers said, glancing around the empty Girlfriends shop during a Monday afternoon interview.

As Jeffers noted, places benefiting the most from the shift in shopper behavior are open-air centers like the Exchange or The Summit in Birmingham, state retail experts said.

That’s obvious, at least, to the investment group that owns part of the Oxford Exchange.

“With the exception of nearby Quintard Mall, most competition is 30-100 miles away, which has helped establish Oxford Exchange as a shopping destination for the trade area,” said Eric Waters, a spokesman for Cole Real Estate Investments.

Of the Exchange’s 334,000 square feet, Waters said, approximately 96 percent is leased to mix of national, regional and local tenants.

You can’t find that anywhere else in Calhoun County right now, officials said.

Planning, planning

So how do places like Anniston and Jacksonville take advantage of these new shifts in retail? Officials in both places talk mostly about getting their act together in terms of strategic planning and recruitment and hiring outside consultants to help each city put those plans together.

It’s important, too, retail experts said, to have an inherent understanding of your communities’ strengths and weaknesses. Anniston and Jacksonville are both well-positioned to attract people who visit the area for the biking and running opportunities at Coldwater Mountain and on the Chief Ladiga Trail, mayors Stewart and Smith noted.

Development of the Veterans Memorial Parkway and growth at McClellan, just as the economy begins to strengthen, is also something that leaders in both cities hope will be a boon for them.

In Anniston, new construction on government buildings in the downtown area will help boost aesthetics and support jobs, officials there said.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville promotes its large student population as an attractive quality for the local retail industry.

Still, promoting these assets and benefiting from new shopping trends will take serious, thoughtful planning, the mayors said.

“We need to make the most of this, and now that the economy is getting better, there’s no better time to plan than right now,” Stewart said. “This year, we’ll hopefully be coming out of the planning process the same time the economy is really rebounding.”

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